Ida is one of those miraculous films where the images on the screen are so startling, so unique, so themselves, that the visuals take on a whole subterranean level of meaning, coursing beneath the actual plot. The power of the images tell their own story. Often the characters are seen in the bottom of the frame, with space ricocheting up above their heads, tall trees, or a wrought-iron gate and window, or a wall. So we are forced to deal with the images on their own terms. They demand attention, but not in a pushy or distracting way. They ARE the story. Often the camera is static but what is going on in the frame, just in terms of its setup, is so arresting that you need that static quality just in order to take in what you are seeing. It’s like standing before a gigantic painting in the Met. Everything goes still as you face the grandeur and mastery of what is before you, and you need to slow everything down, inside, in order to look this way, that, to take it all in. So Ida‘s static quality then becomes an engine of enormous tension.
Directed by Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, Ida tells the story of Anna (Agata Trzebokowska). Anna (also known as Ida) is an orphan, who was raised in an orphanage before joining a convent. She is about to take her vows when the film begins. She is a young woman, with a serious alert face, and she gives herself over to her chores and her prayers and her convent duties with both a practical nature, stomping around in her work boots, and a rapture. It is an isolated and peaceful community, something that is to be treasured, especially in 1962 Poland, gripped in the vice of both Communist rule and the harrowing living memory of World War II. It is a Poland haunted by its own memories. Milan Kundera wrote a lot about “forgetting,” especially in terms of living under totalitarian rule. The role of “forgetting” in such situations is both a survival technique and a tragedy. An enforced system of belief, complete repression, complete censorship, has a way of dictating reality. Pawlikowski often places the figures in the bottom half of the frame, with empty space looming above them. It is a visual manifestation of that feeling of the burden of history, of forgetting. No other film looks like this.
Anna does not know that she is living in a state of “forgetting.” She has no memory of her parents. She does not know anything about them. She was a foundling. But all of that is about to change.
Before the vow ceremony, the Mother Superior calls Anna in to her office and tells her to go visit her aunt Wanda, the only remaining member of her family. Wanda will not come to visit Anna, Anna has to go to her. Even though Anna has never met Wanda, did not know of Wanda’s existence, and is perfectly ready to take her vows and submit to the life of the convent, she obeys.
She shows up at Wanda’s door. Wanda is played by the absolutely magnificent Agneta Kulesza. Wanda is a judge, and spends her off-hours drinking too much and having random sex. She chain smokes. All of it is her own version of “forgetting,” a swan-dive into oblivion in order to wipe out the memories. We don’t know what those memories are at first. They are eventually revealed. A woman in her 40s, she lived through both the Russian/German carving up of Poland, and the Holocaust. In order to survive, she collaborated with the new Communist regime, and became a notable judge known as “Red Wanda,” ruthless with enemies of the state. In the character of Wanda, you can see the disorientation of an entire culture, overrun, destroyed, brutalized, conquered. People do what they must do to survive. But perhaps Wanda did so with a bit too much gusto? We don’t know for sure, but the haunting reality of her current life tells the whole story.
Meanwhile, within 5 minutes of Anna being in Wanda’s apartment, Wanda drops a bomb: “You do know you’re Jewish, right?”
No. Anna didn’t know.
Anna and Wanda set out in Wanda’s beat-up car to find out how Anna’s parents died. It is a quest for information. It is also a journey into the past, a past that was fractured, with millions falling into the abyss. Now, under Communist Rule, it is as though it never happened. Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn covers the same ground. Anna and Wanda drive through a bleak and beautiful landscape, with empty fields, the emptiness shrieking with what had happened there once.
The relationship between Anna and Wanda, as it develops, is a major part of why Ida works so well, although it works on every level it needs to work. Anna is somewhat shocked by Wanda’s floozy ways, but, with a faint grin, she does admit she sometimes has “carnal thoughts,” too.
They interview people in the village where Anna hailed from, people who knew her parents, people who had shielded them from the Nazis, their nice Christian neighbors. Secrets fester. There is a ton of cultural and generational guilt, too huge to even be acknowledged. And Wanda shares in that guilt.
There’s something about the way Pawlikowski films this quiet haunting story that makes it seem like it hails from the past. The modern world is not in evidence. The Cold War has descended, leaving a chill in the landscape. People lose themselves in music and dance, the little echoing hotel bars filled with revelers, as the outside world looms beyond the windows. Wanda and Anna pick up a hitchhiker, (Dawid Ogrodnik), a young guy who is a tenor saxophonist in a band, he’s on his way to a gig. Anna sits at a table in the bar, her nun’s habit dangling, looking on as the band jams out a John Coltrane tune after the gig. It seems like they are the only people alive.
Anna and the saxophonist connect, in a tender and sweet and unspoken way. He knows she is looking for her parents. And that she is Jewish, despite the nun’s garb. He jokes, “I just found out I have some gypsy in me,” bonding with her, and she smiles.
There are scenes where Anna stands at the top of the stairway in the hotel, the sound of the band echoing up the marble halls, life going on elsewhere, quiet and yet strong, as gigantic world events still wreak their havoc on the individual lives of the people onscreen.
What ends up happening is completely devastating. This is partially because the film goes at its subject matter in an oblique way. Scenes are filled with silence, the light streaming through the windows, or the car parked at a ramshackle filling station in the middle of a field, the figures dwarfed by the countryside. There is a lot of talk, but feelings aren’t really discussed. The feelings are there, they pulse off the screen, but something about the direction and the script helps us keep our distance. That distance is where the devastation comes from. I got the sense that I was in the presence of a completely brutalized landscape, scorched earth – not only literally but within people’s minds. The Nazis have almost become cartoon villains at this point, used repeatedly in cinema as unambiguous bad guys. There is nothing wrong with that, the Holocaust is a huge topic, and the mind balks at trying to understand. But the world shown in Ida has shadings of treachery and betrayal that arose as a byproduct of the German invasion, the fallout, so to speak. People do all kinds of terrible things to survive. One cannot be faulted for doing what one has to do, and things like honor and valor are abstract concepts when it comes to life and death matters. There were those who had good intentions towards their Jewish neighbors, but finally, inevitably, it became Us or Them. Anna and Wanda showing up on these people’s doorsteps, asking questions, brings back things they would rather forget.
The performances are revelatory, and the film is often quite funny. The only music we hear is that which plays on the radio, or record players, or from the little hotel bar band. Other than that, silence. Knocking on doors. Driving down roads. Wanda snoring in the hotel bed, passed out fully clothed, as Anna kneels and prays.
The film is so quiet that the devastation, when it comes, feels like a bomb going off deep below the ocean’s surface. The reverb is almost total. There is a delay before we start to feel the waves pulse up top, barreling towards the shoreline. You know something has been exploded. You don’t know what the destruction will look like. You have to wait and see.
Ida is still out in theaters, although probably not for long. If possible, you should see this one on the big screen. The film has been haunting me for two days. I can’t get what it looks like out of my mind. And what it looks like IS what it is about. The more I think about it, the bigger it seems.